I missed the bus to Pen-y-pas (damn those Saturday timetables) and tried thumbing for a lift instead. I was picked up by a man who was tremendously excited to be in the mountains with his son (“There they are, Willoughby! Hee hee! There they are!”). It was, in fairness, a gorgeous day – Summer’s last, peaceful sigh before Autumn overcame it. I stowed the bulk of my bag in the café and joined the merry hoard on its way up the Pyg track.
I had my Spinal Research collection pot with me. I had not planned how I was going to use it. Seeing the masses of people, I decided it certainly wouldn’t be practical to approach them all and explain what I was doing – better to just get on with it. Besides, I didn’t want to feel like I was irritating my way across three countries. I did leave the pot swinging in view along the side of my bag, however, and this made for some lovely encounters where people stopped me to ask what I was doing and whether they could donate.
The ascent was mostly uneventful. I walked in a line of hundreds going up, passing hundreds coming down. At the top, I queued for the summit cairn for ten or fifteen minutes to grab a quick, crowded selfie. I may have had to shoulder the odd miscreant aside in order to place my collection pot onto the bronze plaque for a picture, but then what is the point of charity if you don’t show off about it?
The view excelled. In my experience, even on a sunny day, Snowdon has a habit of stubbornly keeping its little cloud bobble hat on, but today, mountains, hills, forests, fields, and sea all stretched away, endless, eventually to disappear seamlessly into the blue sky. Terry Pratchett’s personification of Death claims that the infinite is blue (at least, when seen from the outside), and on a day like this, one could believe it.
In general, the idea of coming down a mountain the same way I went up is too dull to contemplate. The route round the other side of the Snowdon horseshoe therefore beckoned. The moment I dropped off the summit, I found quiet, stillness, and total solitude. The steep, loose track down was treacherous and demanded attention. I took my time. Ever since my accident, my knees have been liable to flare up in pain, normally triggered by long stretches of downhill. That was one of my biggest fears for the entire challenge; something that genuinely could cause me to really struggle. If I could just get through the first few days, though, I would probably have enough time on relatively flat ground build up the strength I would need. So slowly, slowly I went down the mountain.
Southeast of the summit, the way round the horseshoe drops down about 350 m to a steep-sided saddle, before rising 150 m again to the minor summit of Y Lliwedd. I eyed it skeptically. I had already come to the conclusion that striving for maximum efficiency was going to be a common theme of the entire walk. Before the lowest point of the saddle, there is also a spur going northeast. Most of the ground to my left as I went along was too steep to negotiate, but the spur looked like it might provide an escape route. I was sitting and consulting my map when I was passed by three lads heading in the direction I was contemplating. “Is there a way down there?” I hailed them.
“No idea!” came the cheerful reply. I decided to follow them.
Mountaineers can easily become like the frog in the pan in the old wives’ tale. You can move slowly and carefully into an increasingly sketchy situation, without noticing what you have done until there are no brilliant options to get you out. The lads started to pick their way down with me in tow, here on grass, there on rocks, down a slope that quietly got steeper. We were not on the end of the spur but off one side of it. A scree-filled gully hushed up the conversation as we all gave our full concentration to our foot placement. Down and nervily down we picked our way. I came to the front to negotiate some, slippery steps across small streams and rills. Eventually we made it to flatter ground, and sat down by Llyn Llydaw.
The lads were a friendly bunch from Warwick, called Sam, Ashley, and Tom, who had come to explore the mountains for the weekend. Like me, they had been looking for a way down that avoided the crowds. I sat there with them for about half an hour, throwing stones into the lake and listening to them talk. As someone who grew up desperately shy, I still get moments where I marvel at how pleasant a time I can have chatting with people I just met. The sun was sinking into late afternoon when we set off back down the miners’ track.
I chatted to Tom for a while, who was infectiously positive about his life. He said he had been in bad places, but things were looking up since he had met good people. I gave him an account of my accident. I reached the part where I hit the ground. “I thought I was dying,” I said, sombrely.
“I’ve died twice!” he chipped, in the most beautiful piece of conversational one-upping I ever have or will encounter. It turned out he had twice been revived after his heart stopped. Everyone has a story to tell.
The three of them had to leap straight onto a bus at Pen-y-pas, but they wished me luck for my challenge. I bought a cheese pastry and recovered my bag. God, it felt heavy. I was going to carry this all the way to Scotland? After a rest, I shouldered it with a sigh and began the long march. A couple of hours of evening walking along the roadside brought me to a campsite outside Capel Curig, where I settled for the night. I was tired but my knees had survived. That wasn’t too hard. But then, that was the only day of the whole walk that I would start fresh. It would get harder.